Everyone knows villains are more fun to play.
You get to vent your inner meanness and get appreciated for it, perfection.
From Richard the third to Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the more evil a character is, the more fun can be had with it.
That would make the most fun role in all of stage and screen history quite obvious.
1941’s The Devil and Daniel Webster is a flawed masterpiece, but no less compelling for its flaws.
It doesn’t quite blow you away the first time, yet you keep coming back to it, it’s the very devil of a thing.
Based on a famous short story by Stephen Vincent Benet and expertly directed by German expat William Dieterle, it was not a commercial hit and was subsequently butchered by rough editing.
It’s time this gem got the recognition it deserves.
Let’s start with the not so brilliant stuff.
Despite what the title suggests, the main character here is actually a New England farmer named Jabez Stone played by a fairly stiff actor named James Craig.
He isn’t terrible, just kind of wooden and not very compelling.
The plot, based on Faust, also has some strong socialist tones which come across as a bit too thick.
It pits the rich miser class backed by the devil’s pawns against the god-fearing and honest workers union.
For honest measure and to avoid any charges of communism, it also has a hefty dollop of good old American patriotism thrown in, which hasn’t aged very well.
Again, not terrible by any means, but not stellar either.
Now for the good stuff.
First and foremost, Walter Huston as the devil (Mr. Scratch) gives one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema.
Far from being a scary red demon, he is a likable fellow with a spring in his step and the gift of the gab.
He enjoys taking souls to the abyss, but is up for any small trick like stealing pies and carrots and getting Daniel Webster drunk before a trial.
Greed and lust are his primary weapons and he makes them seem like the right thing to do, sin now and pay seven years later, we can take up the question of renewal in due time.
Watch this performance and his Treasure of the Sierra Madre performance within the same week and you will be hard pressed to think of a greater actor.
His entrance scene is also extremely memorable for the unearthly sights and sounds that accompany it.
Speaking of making an entrance, another unforgettable one is provided by Simone Simon as the devil’s assistant/ Jabez’s temptress Belle.
She literally takes the place of a servant girl and makes no attempt to hide it, relying on her considerable charms to get her through.
The enticing French beauty with her pout and kittenish ways had such a hypnotizing effect on the studio executives that she was cast a year later as an actual cat-woman in the classic horror movie “Cat People”.
The rest of the cast does a splendid job too.
Edward Arnold as Daniel Webster is a legend in his own lifetime with a penchant for justice, Medford rum and the red white and blue.
John Qualen and Jane Darwell, two amazing character actors fresh from Ford’s Grapes of Wrath, are respectively the very picture of miserness and god-fearing honesty.
Bernard Hermann’s score, for which he won an Oscar and the fantastic John Ford meets Murnau cinematography provide the film with an unsettling atmosphere.
Plays of shadows and light and weird sounds give you a sinking feeling, even while things are looking good for the main characters.
Hermann recorded the twanging of long distance telephone wires and played it backwards to create some spooky sounds, a full 26 years before Sgt. pepper.
Also worthy of special mention are the special effects which have aged gracefully.
The subtle transformations of objects and the devil’s play with fire are still charming to behold and add to the overall effect of the picture.
A trailer is available on Youtube.
Don’t watch it.
Just watch the movie and thank me later, when you watch it for the second time.